Billions in aid failing to improve standards in Third World schools

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Billions of pounds spent increasing access to education in the Third World has failed to improve standards of schooling, the World Bank has warned.

A report by the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) - the Bank spending watchdog - said Gordon Brown's £1bn programme of aid to give every child access to primary education would founder unless more was done to improve standards.

A 15-year study of 700 primary education projects in the developing world warned that only 39 per cent fully achieved their aim of improving the quality of education, and only one in four hit targets for cutting dropout rates.

The IEG said only one in five Bank-funded education projects had explicit aims to improve standards in basic skills such as reading and writing and warned governments not to press ahead with school expansion at the price of teaching quality. The report said: "Absolute levels of achievement, even in countries where positive change has occurred, are generally far from satisfactory despite investment in quality improvement."

Privately, bank officials said that funding for education initiatives could dry up if standards were not maintained. Vinod Thomas, the director general of the IEG, said: "Countries and the World Bank have done well in making primary education more accessible to children, including the disadvantaged, but there has not been nearly enough emphasis on whether children are improving their basic skills.

"There must be continued efforts to provide more children with access to school and at the same time to also ensure learning actually takes place at school."

Government ministers have pledged a major drive to tackle poor governance in the Third World as part of a White Paper mapping out Britain's five-year plan for meeting the goals of last year's G8 summit at Gleneagles.

The paper confirmed the Chancellor's pledge to double education spending on the Third World to more than £1bn a year. Sources at the Department for International Development insisted they were working to maintain standards as countries such as Kenya and Zambia expand primary education and abolish fees.

But they said arguments about school standards should not stop the drive to increase access to education. One source said: "In the past, people have argued about quality and that has helped back progress on access. We need to do both."

Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, announced the creation of a £100m a year fund to promote good government and financial openness in the developing world. He said Britain would work through foreign governments where possible, but warned that corrupt administrations would not be backed. Britain will publish reports on corruption on Third World states. Mr Benn said: "Long-term progress in the fight against poverty will only be achieved through effective governance and by people with the voice and confidence to hold their government to account."

Mr Benn said that the document would help persuade the world's richest nations to fulfil pledges made at Gleneagles by showing how Britain would meet its pledges on aid. "We have made progress in the past 12 months but we have not yet made poverty history," he added.